Proclaiming the Unknown
Father, may I trust that when I reach for strength, You’ll give it; when I ask for wisdom, You’ll provide it.
Read ACTS 17:16–34
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
New International Version (NIV)
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means, I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
“This passage has attracted more scholarly attention than any other in Acts” (Ben Witherington). This is partly because of its famous Athenian setting, but also because of what it reveals about Paul’s methods of proclamation. What is unique about it is his audience—an educated and philosophical Gentile audience without Jewish synagogue contacts. This different group of hearers brings about a different message from Paul, one which is relevant to them.
Paul usually builds his case from the Old Testament, a pattern that we see throughout Acts. However, it is remarkable that in this context there is not a single reference to the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Paul deliberately constructs his message using references that would have been relevant and authoritative to his audience. He begins by referencing an altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD,” with which they would have been familiar (23). He then uses natural theology to build his case for God from the evidence of creation (24–27). He even quotes some of their well-known poets (28), and he concludes this sophisticated message with a clear call to repentance, backed up by a reference to Christ’s resurrection (29–31).
This is clearly a masterly sermon, but the larger point is clear—we must vary our message to accommodate our hearers. Paul appears to have felt very free to alter his standard approach when speaking to a non-standard audience. We live in a world which is in many ways quite similar to that of ancient Athens—a world of learning and of multiple philosophies and arguments. This makes Paul’s proclamation on the Areopagus extremely pertinent. It is crucial that we learn to proclaim our message in a way which is relevant and authoritative to those who hear it.
Who has God called you to reach? What carries meaning and authority to them? How can you present the Good News relevantly, calling them to repentance and faith?
Lord, I lift up to You the encounters I will have with unbelievers today. I pray that my attitude to them will be respectful and affirming. But above all else, I pray, as You lead, to give clear presentations of the Gospel.
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